The indigenous demand for Habitat III? Territoriality

Bridging the GAP | Huge numbers of indigenous communities live in urban areas across the globe, but often they’re there due to circumstance rather than choice.

Indigenous women on the streets of Uummannaq, Greenland, March 2014. (Mark Garten/UN Photo)

This story is part of an occasional series on the General Assembly of Partners (GAP), the main vehicle for civil society to organize and advocate ahead of Habitat III, the U. N. urbanization summit in October in Quito. The GAP represents a wide range of interests, which have coalesced into 16 constituent groups. Citiscope is profiling these groups and their preparations on the road to Quito with a focus on why sustainable urban development matters to their constituents.

Next week — 12 October — marks the 524th anniversary of Italian navigator Christopher Columbus’s purported discovery of the Americas for the Spanish Crown in 1492. The occasion will be celebrated as Columbus Day in the United States, Discovery Day in the Bahamas, and Day of the Americas in Belize and Uruguay. Italian communities worldwide also will celebrate their heritage.

For the indigenous peoples of the Americas, however, the holiday is not so rosy. Columbus’s arrival marked centuries of warfare, genocide and disease that decimated ancestral populations and traditional ways of life. Indigenous peoples now constitute about 5 percent of the world’s population yet account for about 15 percent of the world’s poor, according to the U. S.-based NGO Cultural Survival. There are approximately 370 million indigenous people in the world, making up 5,000 groups in 90 countries.

The backlash against Columbus grew only recently, in the run-up to the 500th anniversary of his voyage across the Atlantic Ocean. In 1990, some 350 indigenous representatives met in Quito, Ecuador, for the first Intercontinental Gathering of Indigenous People in the Americas. There, they agreed to protest the quincentenary of Columbus’s journey.

Their movement galvanized action at the city level, with the small U. S. city of Berkeley the first to start a trend of officially renaming the holiday as “Indigenous Peoples’ Day” or “Native American Day.” Now dozens of U. S. cities and towns have taken the symbolic gesture —  including, as of last week, major metros such as Denver and Phoenix. In Seattle, home to a large native population, there is scheduled a daylong celebration with drumming and ceremonies.

‘Cosmic vision’

If Quito, itself home to a large Quechua-speaking indigenous community, sparked a movement for indigenous rights, it will have another opportunity to raise the profile of these marginalized groups later this month when the city hosts the U. N.’s Habitat III summit. The 20-yearly conference will see representatives from all U. N. member states gather to adopt a new global vision for sustainable urbanization — the New Urban Agenda.

“In the city, their situation is more precarious and they have more necessities. They suffer discrimination, too, and health and education access is harder for them.”

Ana Lucy Benogchea
Garifuna activist from Honduras

For Ana Lucy Benogchea, a Garifuna activist from Honduras, the summit is an opportunity to share the indigenous vision of the world. She said she hopes the New Urban Agenda will reflect “our cosmic vision of man and nature.” For indigenous people, she explained, every feature of the natural world, from a tiny plant to a giant mountain, is sacred. “Each one of these signifies a life for us,” she said.

She also wants the New Urban Agenda to force governments to consult with indigenous people in decision-making that affects their lands and livelihoods. She summed up the indigenous demand ahead of Habitat III in one word: “territoriality.”

[See: In Habitat’s birthplace, new Vancouver Declaration emerges on gender and indigenous rights]

With rampant discrimination at the hands of national governments, indigenous activists have long turned to the United Nations as an ally, especially following the adoption of the 2007 Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

Five years later at the Rio+20 conference — a major sustainability-focused U. N. summit — an entire indigenous village was set up inside the Rio city limits. Indigenous groups were some of that conference’s most visible activists. The summit’s outcome, “The Future We Want,” even included a reference to “Mother Earth,” a concept shared by many indigenous cosmologies.

U. N. declarations and treaties serve as powerful standard-setting instruments, as common measuring sticks that the ‘world’ agrees to,” said Cultural Survival’s Agnes Portalewska. “They are only effective if these standards are utilized — in advocacy by indigenous peoples — if we collectively use them to hold governments and corporations accountable to their promises and obligations to implement the standards and respect, protect and fulfill rights.”

To that end, the New Urban Agenda mentions indigenous peoples 11 times and twice singles them out for special consideration.

“We will engage indigenous peoples and local communities in the promotion and dissemination of knowledge of tangible and intangible cultural heritage and protection of traditional expressions and languages, including through the use of new technologies and techniques,” states Paragraph 125 of the agenda’s final draft, as agreed last month.

In Paragraph 38, governments commit to “safeguard and promote … indigenous cultures and languages, as well as traditional knowledge and the arts, highlighting the role that these play in the rehabilitation and revitalization of urban areas, and as a way to strengthen social participation and the exercise of citizenship.”

[See: Human rights and the New Urban Agenda]

Such terms are valuable, even in a non-binding, voluntary agreement like the New Urban Agenda. “The more they are quoted and utilized in all spheres — advocacy, legal settings and politics — the more power they have,” Portalewska said.

Two worlds

While the New Urban Agenda does acknowledge the outcome document of the Rio+20 conference, it does not mention the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Ultimately, Habitat III’s urban focus is not likely to draw the same level of indigenous activism as Rio+20’s environmental focus — but that sense ignores demographic realities.

“Many indigenous people live in two worlds, in an urban setting and migrate home several times a year to ancestral lands for ceremonies and family visits,” said Portalewska, pointing out that the largest indigenous community in the United States lives in New York City.

[See: Historic cities already embody sustainability principles]

Still, indigenous people often find themselves living in cities not by choice but by circumstance. “Historically, indigenous peoples have moved to cities because of push factors: climate change, being persecuted, displaced from land grabs, pollution … forced assimilation, or for economic and social reasons like access to health care, seeking employment and education,” said Portalewska, “largely because of being forced or lack of opportunity on their ancestral lands.”

Urban life is often not easy on traditional peoples. “There are negative impacts because in their rural areas they live off the land,” explained Benogchea, the Garifuna activist. “In the city, their situation is more precarious and they have more necessities. They suffer discrimination, too, and health and education access is harder for them.”

Benogchea’s own indigenous affiliation, the Garifuna people descended from African slaves and the native peoples of the Caribbean islands, have largely moved to the urban centres of Honduras and Belize, as well as emigrated abroad. An estimated 100,000 Garifuna, out of a global population of 600,000, live in New York City.

But cities don’t have to be hostile places for indigenous communities. When First Nations activists in Toronto surreptitiously changed street signs to reflect pre-English names, a local business-improvement district opted to make the new bilingual signs permanent. Such signage is already de rigueur across swaths of metro Vancouver, a trend begun ahead of the 2010 Winter Olympics. The Spokane Tribe, outside of the U. S. city of the same name, has partnered with a national grocery store chain to alleviate the community’s food desert.

[See: Canada has emerged as one of Habitat III’s strongest advocates for vulnerable groups]

Quito, meanwhile, is home to some 92,000 indigenous people, according to Ecuador’s 2010 census. Many are clustered in dense hillside neighbourhoods around the Mercado de San Roque, on the edge of Quito’s historic district, where rural vendors bring their goods to market.

Quechua, rather than Spanish, is their lingua franca, although recent educational reforms that have mainstreamed indigenous students into citywide high schools has diluted their language training. In secondary school, Quechua is an optional course of study rather than the language of instruction.

Ecuador’s leftist president, Rafael Correa, drew political support from indigenous groups with a shared dislike for neoliberal economic policy that they perceive as degrading the natural environment through oil, natural gas and mining. Many indigenous concepts, such as the Quechua notion of “buen vivir” (living well), the “Rights of Nature”, and Madre Tierra (Mother Earth) are enshrined in Ecuador’s 2008 constitution, which Correa oversaw.

However, recent political tensions have seen Correa clash with indigenous activists, and if there are protests in the streets of Quito during Habitat III, indigenous groups are likely to be part of the mix. Perched high in the Andes, the Quechua heartland, Quito’s indigenous presence is likely to leave a mark on the legacy of Habitat III.

Stay up to date on all Habitat III news! Sign up here for Citiscope’s weekly newsletter. Citiscope is a member of the Habitat III Journalism Project; read more here.

Get Citiscope’s email newsletter on local solutions to global goals.

Back to top

More from Citiscope

Latest Commentary